Get Carter (1971)

D: Mike Hodges
S: Michael Caine, Ian Hendry

Very slick cross-breeding of film noir, British social realism, and European art house cinema from writer/director Mike Hodges concerning the quest by laconic London mob enforcer Michael Caine to find out who killed his brother and why. Returning to his home town of industrial Newcastle, he quickly finds himself knee-deep in sleazy and suspicious characters with hidden agendas and secret information which he intends to uncover. After some preliminary enquiries, men in heavy overcoats begin trying to 'escort' him out of town. He successfully avoids this for a while but eventually the confrontations between the parties become violent, especially once he begins to piece together the truth.

Get Carter is a beautifully paced and visually clever film. Hodges takes the paranoid intricacy of Hollywood noirs, the incidental detail, semidocumentary realism and downbeat tone of British social realism, and the sense of space, frame, and visual narrative of European art house films and works them through a story told at a blistering pace. It begins with a contemplative scene where Carter gazes out over the London night from a high-rise apartment to the strains of Roy Budd's atmospheric score. This is quickly followed by a dizzying high-speed train journey north on which the character indulges himself in various forms of substance abuse before arriving in the grimy, dark, and forbidding wasteland in which the remainder of the action occurs. The film becomes progressively harder and more bitterly vengeful as it goes, matching its central character's increasing determination and gradually revealing the depths of his malice.

Caine is perfect in the lead, successfully managing to portray a righteous determination to avenge his brother's wrongful death with a genuine and affecting brutality. He is a long way from the cheerful capering ofThe Italian Job, but brings some of his characteristic playfulness and charisma to a much darker character. Carter cuts a swathe through the low-lifes of the Newcastle underworld, but he is far from an angel himself. "I'm the villain in the family," he reminds a woman who tries to convince him that his brother was involved in shady dealings. As various businessmen, pornographers, and gamblers try to manipulate him, Carter stands apart like a man who recognises his own kind and its wiles. He is more ruthless than James Bond in his treatment of women, more vicious when provoked, and more rooted than any comparable character in either American or British genre film for quite some time. Caine succeeds in bringing the paradoxes and contradictions of the character to the screen and is equally at home playing sardonic black comedy and murderous coldness, cruelty, and callousness.

The screenplay is based on the novel Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis and is run through with specific contextual information on the industrial north and the social milieu from which Carter has emerged and now returned to. The climax takes place in a coal yard eerily devoid of human presence beside a polluted sea with black sand and a dull, grey sky. Hodges combines the actual location with the metaphysical drama in progress upon it to suggest that redemption is not in question here for either man or society. Carter's path of vengeance is ultimately merciless and without visible benefit. Even the fate of his beleaguered niece with which some of the story is concerned is finally suggested and not particularly hopeful. Carter is an anti-hero in the truest sense of the word, committing acts of violence which purge society only insofar as it serves his own need for revenge. He leaves no real evidence that he has changed the world for the better and his own acts of violence are as morally repugnant as those committed by the guilty he has punished.

Surprising among the supporting cast is playwright John Osborne whose presence only further serves to reinforce the connection with the social drama of the 1950s and 60s. Get Carter is not visibly polemical (though it is visibly poetic), but one gets the sense that it is run through with an awareness of time and place which transcends and enriches the generic base. Hodges persistent use of composition to increase tension and demonstrate the sense of space between beings is also a clue that he has been watching the likes of Godard and Antonioni, and he seems to borrow particularly from the latter in the film's final scenes. But, importantly, Hodges is also careful to keep the film lively and actionful. He builds scenes gradually and injects action only when and where necessary to increase the stakes and heighten the overall sense of mounting danger. It is as effective as entertainment as it is as art and craft, which makes it especially likely to prove a popular success.

From a contemporary point of view Get Carter has been a massively influential movie. It has spawned a legion of inferior 'smart lad' gangster flicks, especially in recent years (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, etc), and Caine's quite clever performance has unfortunately been too often misperceived to be a stone-faced hardness which has led to terrible indulgence on the part of actors trying to capture the style of it. Along with The Long Good Friday, Get Carter is one of the few authentic genre entries to come out of the UK and it holds up as well as you would expect given the skill and artistry with which it was originally put together. It has even now been blessed or cursed with an American remake after thirty years (with Sylvester Stallone) and though it owes something to many and diverse film and literary sources (including the likes of Point Blank), it is a distinctively British film which is likely to stand on its own merits for some time yet while its progeny fade into one another in an indistinct blur of empty imitation.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.

Note: The Region 2 DVD comes with a commentary by director Mike Hodges and cinematographer Wolfgang Suzitchsky, stills and publicity materials and an isolated music score track. It is also presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio, which no video issue has ever done before now.